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Contrast, Light, Grading, etc. in Tree of Life


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#1 M Joel W

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Posted 04 February 2012 - 06:34 PM

I don't want to argue about the merits of this film or its cinematography since I think that discussion has been had ad nauseum, rather I'd like some insight into how this technical marvel was actually made...

IMDb claims the film was shot on a mix of 5217, 5219, red, and IMAX with master prime and ultra primes. I've read the film was shot almost entirely with natural light and, for once, I'll believe it (the night interiors obviously had practicals chosen specifically for how they would throw light and the set design--lots of windows and blue/green walls--was specifically tailer for contrast, color, and light, and I imagine they took something out of the truck everyone once in a while for interiors in particular, but still, wow). Looking in the eyes during day exteriors, I never saw a beadboard, 12x frame, anything at all--sometimes to the detriment of a particular shot that might have benefited from a bit more fill or an eye light imo, but overall this is the best cinematography of the year by far and the best natural light cinematography I've seen.

Which begs the question--how? The basic tricks were all there--backlit late day photography, blue hour photography, etc. but the look is like nothing I've seen. I've rarely seen overcast days where light was quite that contrasty or directional and the lack of raccoon eyes during overcast exteriors (and the surprisingly lush palette) is impressive. A lot of the day exteriors shot with direct sun have much less contrast than I'd expect, too. Does anyone know what the DI process was like for this film? The light and contrast is breathtaking. The overcast photography looks too good to be real, the direct sun photography too soft and low contrast to truly be unfilled (and yet where are the reflections in the eyes from reflectors--there never were any that I could see)?

The blue hour stuff looks too good to be real, too. When I shoot during blue hour the contrast between the sky and foreground is simply too much for a camera to handle. And yet the contrast is just perfect with no evidence of grad filters or polarizers in sight.

Furthermore, the day interior photography looked appropriately exposed and absolutely gorgeous. And yet soft light through the window rarely provides a bright enough key. Maybe the wide lenses let them shoot almost wide open?

Did this movie undergo a crazy DI or was it simply the strength of the photography? The DI must have been quite good. I can usually tell when scenes switch between IMAX and 35mm--the grain structure and contrast changes. But here it was seamless. And the red and film must have been graded together seamlessly, too, since it all looked great to me, quite an accomplishment since I think red rarely handles greens and skin tones as well as film.

Also, how did they do the creation of the universe stuff? Incredible effects. I want to emulate those for a short I'm doing.

Anyone have any insight? I did catch one rack aperture...

Edited by M Joel Wauhkonen, 04 February 2012 - 06:38 PM.

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#2 Marcus Joseph

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Posted 04 February 2012 - 08:38 PM

I find it's easier to ask why rather than how. I find most people can come up something themselves knowing solely on why they'd want to do it and figure out the solutions as opposed to mechanically trying to figure out all the fine technical details. Kind of learning as you go along.

I think it was primarily shot with those film stocks you listed which would be one of the reasons the sky and foreground would all be visible during the blue hour with the high latitude which Emmanuel said in an article that he was very grateful for. I could be wrong, but I think they only used Red for the modern Sean Penn stuff. Even then, they still had a lot of rack apertures that Emmanuel himself was controlling to deal with the varying degrees of natural light rather than light everything to a certain stop. So all in all, they would have retained a lot of information to work with from the negative and as long as everyone hit all the marks right with those daring shots, they could make them really work for the screen. I'd recommend checking out the AC article about it too, I haven't had the chance to, but I'm sure it explains a lot about what they were doing.

Here is something written up by Nestor Almendros about shooting Days of Heaven, which had far more limitations over today's stocks and post technology http://www.terrencem...-of-heaven.html They did such an incredible feat for cinematography in the 70s and solved most of your concerns back then which is a lot more difficult.
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#3 M Joel W

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Posted 05 February 2012 - 11:48 AM

Days of Heaven looked amazing, but its technical magic was entirely different from Tree of Life's. If I remember, Days of Heaven got its look by Almendros pushing two stops, shooting with a t1.1 lens, shooting everything backlit at magic hour or blue hour, not using an 85 filter at blue hour, etc. It looked amazing and of course pulling those kinds of things off is an incredible achievement, but I don't think they had the technology to achieve some of the photography in Tree of Life in the 1970s or else it would have looked different. Days of Heaven is a soft, grainy movie and while it looks great, Tree of Life is a technical marvel in a whole different category. (Aesthetically they're both pretty incredible but very different stylistically, imo.)

I also don't think "why" is the right question, to be perfectly honest. Why shoot blue hour it like that? Because it looks great is a good enough reason. How do you retain that much highlight detail or light faces so attractively without reflectors or overheads (when shooting with wide angle lenses)? That's a harder question to answer. My best guess is careful grading, compressing the highlights in the DI. Maybe waiting for overcast days that have thin enough clouds where light is still directional and even then shooting backlit. But those are rare conditions. I'm still a total beginner and for me it's easy to see this movie and be wowed by it, aesthetically and technically, but it would be very difficult for me to shoot footage like this (particularly on my little t2i).

"Why" is easy for me--I love natural light, wide lenses, the interplay between green and skin tones in a frame, and dramatic landscape photography in general, but I am not a fan of the HDR look, polarizers, or grads. How is my concern right now. I've gone outside in nice light and tried to photograph like this, it's not happening; I don't have the skills (or possibly the gear--again, shooting with a dSLR). It might just be a matter of me being inept, but I want to know "how."

Edited by M Joel Wauhkonen, 05 February 2012 - 11:52 AM.

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#4 Bruce Southerland

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Posted 05 February 2012 - 02:27 PM

There's an article about this film in the August 2011 issue of American Cinematographer
magazine. Here's some highlights that may answer some of your questions.

The film was shot on Kodak 5218 500T & 5217 200T.
85 filter was not used-color balance done in timing.
Shot in 1.85:1 for maximum resolution & low grain.
Lenses were Arri/Zeiss master & ultra primes.
Changes were made to some of the houses used, to
add additional windows-and other alterations to allow
the natural light in. They shot in three different
houses that had different orientations to the sun-and the
same room would be represented in three houses-meaning they
could shoot the same scene at different times of the day.
Negative fill was used on exteriors,provided by a black card,
used to eliminate two similar sources on either side of an actor.
Lubezki credits the films latitude for making this kind of shooting
possible, and said "The most important rule for me is not to under
expose,we want the blacks, not milky images.
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#5 M Joel W

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Posted 05 February 2012 - 04:44 PM

Very interesting...I talked with an extremely talented landscape photographer who eschews the use of 85 filters, too. He shoots 4x5 velvia with no filtration. Not even polarizers. Pretty amazing, actually. Similar beautiful greens and lush tonality to Tree of Life in his work, but more contrast and saturation.
Curious that Lubezki would use polarizers at all given their deleterious effect on skin tone and wonky tendencies when used with wide lenses and camera movement.

I read the online portion of the ASC article (should have done this in the first place, didn't know it was available) and they did some interesting stuff.

I found their anti-"light sandwich" dictum (negative fill, as you mentioned) surprising...sculptural lighting is generally something to strive toward and for exteriors you've got one light source so how often do you really get this? And yet it seemed like a major concern. I wish I could identify when this was used.

And I don't believe Lubezki when he claims they wanted to avoid lens flares and use deep focus. The movie was full of lens flares and shallow focus photography, to the extent that I bet they were using NDs to achieve it. The sunstars and bokeh were gorgeous, of course.

The overexposure and DI process seemed to have a lot to do with the look. I read that they wanted to time photochemically but couldn't because current print stocks are too contrasty. I don't think this look would have been possible without the DI. Anyhow, the result is incredible and Kodak should use this to advertise film, except of course that the footage shot on red looked just as good...

I might have to upgrade from my dSLR for the exteriors in my next short...I just don't believe this look is technically possible with cheap digital, even with the best lighting conditions.

Edited by M Joel Wauhkonen, 05 February 2012 - 04:45 PM.

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#6 Marcus Joseph

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Posted 06 February 2012 - 02:47 AM

I believe the deep focus rule applied to The New World.
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#7 M Joel W

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Posted 06 February 2012 - 02:16 PM

Hmm...yes, that would make a lot more sense.
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#8 Blake Z Larson

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Posted 15 July 2012 - 02:59 PM

I can usually tell when scenes switch between IMAX and 35mm--the grain structure and contrast changes. But here it was seamless. And the red and film must have been graded together seamlessly, too, since it all looked great to me, quite an accomplishment since I think red rarely handles greens and skin tones as well as film.


If I recall correctly, IMAX was used for all the plate shots where the dinosaurs were composted onto and I also heard that the Red was used, without a lens, to record light streaks that were then composted into the universe portions of the creation scene. Otherwise I think it was a mostly a 35 production.
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